7:30pm | €20
7:30pm | €20
The Jeff Ballard Fairgrounds makes music that feels like the 21st century – open, fluid and ever-developing, a sound informed by jazz but truly coming to life where worlds collide: acoustic and electric, swinging and ambient, analog and digital, accessible and experimental.
Led by Jeff Ballard – the virtuoso drummer who is also a keen-eared composer and close collaborator with the likes of Brad Mehldau, Mark Turner and Guilliermo Klein – the band initially involved a rotating cast (including Eddie Henderson, Larry Grenadier, Jeff Parker and Anders Christensen, plus such guests as Miguel Zénon, Tigran Hamasyan and Phil Grenadier); in that guise, the Fairgrounds played such hallowed halls as the Village Vanguard and around Europe. But the group has settled into a fresh quartet for a March 2015 tour of Europe and the recording of a live album, for release via OKeh/Sony. This core foursome features Ballard with guitarist-vocalist Lionel Loueke, keyboardist-vocalist Kevin Hays and Reid Anderson on electronics. This potent combination consists of musicians who revere the past while realizing that art is always made in the present tense; they grew up versed in deep traditions – with Ballard, for instance, earning his stripes early on as youthful stickman for Ray Charles – but are keen to blur boundaries between genres. Jazz, rock, electronica and West African music all figure into the shape-shifting, cross-cultural sound of the Jeff Ballard Fairgrounds.
Referring to the name of the band, Ballard says: “You know how you go to the fairgrounds for an amusement park or a festival, and there are all these rides and games – all this cool, fun stuff happening? That, to me, is like the sound of this band, the Fairgrounds. There are all these different personalities in the group that enable the music to go in different directions, often turning on a dime. It sounds like a thrill ride to me.”
For Ballard, the very contemporary sonic profile and fluid membership ideal was inspired, in part, by Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, a groundbreaking if now underrated group of the 1980s. Along with being led by a great drummer, that band engaged with pop and world music, cutting-edge technology and deep tradition, form and fluidity. “I see the Fairgrounds as something that’s very open and full of possibilities,” Ballard explains. “But what I want this music to keep in touch with, no matter the fluctuations and experimentation, is structure and lyricism, with all four of us having a mind to create music that’s tangible and accessible even as we have free rein. That said, there can be a tendency today for musicians to be too polite – and that’s never what I want.
The music shouldn’t digress, but it should be bold. I want us to make something organic and real – music you can feel, that you can almost touch.”
One of Ballard’s kindred spirits in the Fairgrounds, Lionel Loueke is also a member – along with saxophonist Miguel Zénon – of the Jeff Ballard Trio, the band for the drummer’s debut recording as a leader, Time’s Tale, released to acclaim via OKeh in early 2014. Loueke, who was born and raised in the West African country of Benin, is a distinctive stylist on both acoustic and electric guitar; along with his own recordings as a leader for Blue Note, his sound has been in demand by the likes of Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard. About his strong rapport with Loueke, Ballard says: “Lionel has such a unique sonic fingerprint as an artist, as well as patience and wisdom about where to put that fingerprint down in the music. He’s his own man and a real explorer of sound, with extraordinary ears. As a singer, he has a warm, rich voice. And as an electric guitarist, he can touch on Hendrix, with this almost psychedelic side; then he has a nylon-string acoustic sound that channels his West African tradition. There’s something simultaneously ancient and very modern about what Lionel does.”
Ballard says that he chose these players “for their personalities not their instruments”. He points out what keyboardist Kevin Hays brings to the band: “Kevin just has this wonderful diversity to his musicianship, from playing old-school jazz with Joe Henderson, Benny Golson and John Scofield to his progressive duo work with Brad Mehldau and his excursions into modern classical. He also has a cool pop sensibility and comes up with his own singer/songwriter-type tunes. Kevin just has this wide-screen view of music.”
Reid Anderson – who many jazz fans will know as the bassist in star trio The Bad Plus – contributes a digital edge to the band, having developed his own palette of laptop electronica away from his acoustic instrument. “I’ve known Reid as a bass player for 20 years or more, but he is deep into this art of electronica. With his composer’s sensibility, he reacts in the heat of the moment to what the rest of the group is doing, adding swirling atmospheres, otherworldly textures and weird beats – and not only that, but bringing a unique, almost disruptive feeling to the music, that it could go anywhere at any time. There’s a limitless potential to what he brings to the band’s sound, as he keeps developing this electronic instrument – he has a whole world in there.”
As for Ballard, the drummer directs the Fairgrounds on the bandstand by setting up inspiring, stimulating rhythmic environments, tapping myriad grooves – from New Orleans second line to slow-burn blues, from Philly Joe Jones-like swing to modernist-jazz à la Tony Williams, from Mitch Mitchell-style rock to Afro-Cuban and beyond. The New York Times singled out Ballard’s rhythmic virtuosity and able leadership in a review of an early incarnation of the Fairgrounds performing at the Village Vanguard: “Over the last decade, Mr. Ballard, an alert and curious musician, has been the drummer in Brad Mehldau’s trio and in the trio Fly; in the more distant past, he’s played with Ray Charles and Eddie Harris. He’s integrated into his playing much of what he knows, including swing, rock backbeats, funk and Cuban and Brazilian hand drumming… Without breaking stride, his beats become thicker, stranger and more detailed; he adds breadth and texture, pushing outward, acting like a leader.”
Reviewing a Dublin show, All About Jazz marveled at “the heady chemistry” of the Jeff Ballard Fairgrounds as “a band dedicated to exploring sounds as opposed to just repeating them”. Asserting his vision, Ballard says: “With this band, I feel like I can do whatever I want whenever I want, conducting the energy of the group but not what the guys do with it. The music should live with an organic complexity, something the band discovers and shares as we go. I want this band to play experimental-music rooms, electronica venues and jam-band halls, as well as the jazz clubs I’ve played for 25 years. I want our purview to go beyond genre. With the Fairgrounds, there are so many possibilities – and I’m excited to explore them.”
— Bradley Bambarger